The Willow Society

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Chapter 74

Chapter 74

A rough shake from a strong grip shook Taylor awake. Suddenly the world, his room, came into focus. Blinking away sleep, Taylor yawned and stretched, mumbling. “Still tired, Mom. Lemme sleep!“ The room grew fuzzy again and his eyes began to close as sleep almost retook him. But the shaking came back, stronger, more urgent.

“Taylor! Wake up! They're back!“ There was a frantic nature to the voice, a tone of skittish fear. It jolted Taylor out of sleep right away. I'm not in my room. I'm in the HQ.

“Where?“ he asked, his head darting around the room.

“Upstairs.“ It was Izzy shaking him awake. “Alexander is with them.“ Taylor's heart wanted to skip a few beats before his mind caught up. Izzy was not talking about the Behrstables or their henchmen when she said they. Which was what Taylor had been dreaming of, but about Isabel and Sue-Ann. Rubbing at his eyes, he nodded.

“OK. I'm ready. Where are the others?“ he said.

“They're already up there.“ Izzy said. She wouldn't look at him, not directly, not in his face. Is she going to ignore me or ignore the kiss we had? Maybe both? Despite knowing, even more so now, that the two of them were a bad idea, Taylor had to tamp down the urge to kiss her again. She smelled vaguely of floral soap, or perfume. Like a warm, spring day. A warm spring day somewhere besides New York City. Taylor got up and followed Izzy out of the HQ, towards the spiral staircase which led to the upstairs portion of Chatham House, the bedrooms and private areas.

The door to the room Isabel and Sue-Ann used as a lounge or study of sorts, opened to admit someone, then closed again. By the time he and Izzy made it to the door, the landing was empty, quiet. Izzy didn't knock she just opened the door and walked in the room. Taylor followed.

Everyone was there. Seated next to each other were Winston, Myth, and Lou. Next to them were two empty chairs, pushed closer together than normal. A third smaller chair sat next to them and it was empty as well. A second sofa facing the first, where Izzy and Taylor sat. The furniture formed a rectangle with chairs making one set of opposing sides and sofas making another. Isabel stood near the fireplace, windswept and harried. Sue-Ann pale and haggard, her face older and more drawn than Taylor had ever seen it was ensconced in one of the two chairs whose backs faced the fireplace and Isabel. Alexander was there, looking out of the window, her head rotating slowly as she scanned the street below. After everyone else had sat down, she sighed and took a seat herself, across from Isabel and Sue-Ann.

“Great. I don't know how to make this easy, so I'm, just going to come out with it.“ Taylor was full of questions waiting to be asked. Clearly, Sue-Ann and Isabel had not been hurt at the TransClarion Building, if they had even made it that far. Surely someone had called them back after Taylor fell asleep. And Alexander had clearly taken care of whatever remained at TwinStar, gotten out no worse for the wear, which is to say she still looked quite beaten up, bruised and swollen across most of her face. One of her eyes was half-shut and her lower lip was monstrously huge. Winston and Lou didn't look much better. Alexander had to keep licking her swollen lip every couple of seconds. That's new. It hadn't been there when they left her at TransClarion. This morning? Yesterday? How long was I asleep?

I wonder where Tate is? Had the man dropped Izzy and Myth off at Chatham, returned William to Taylor's parents and gone into hiding? Taylor knew William was at home, safe, but not more than that, and he only knew that because Myth had called his parents and checked. He wasn't up to calling them himself, they would have too many questions, but Myth had assured them Taylor was well. It had to be enough for now. Alexander speaking drew his attention to her.

“ are all targets now. All we got were Units, minor flunkies, and Behrstable's receptionist. I did what I could, but I couldn't tell the Director everything.“ She blanched, clearly ashamed of what had been done to her, of what she likely felt was, at least partly, her own fault. “I've seen first hand what this tech can do, and frankly, I don't trust The Director with it.“ That wasn't what Taylor expected to hear. Had anyone told her of Tate's presence at TransClarion? What would she make of it? It took a few seconds for what she had said to truly sink in on Taylor. She didn't tell the NSA about the tech? How did she cover it all up? That also meant she hadn't told her Director about the Mayor, the Behrstable Twins, the important stuff. Taylor wanted to swear and sigh in relief. But Alexander just kept on talking.

“I don't know that anyone can be trusted with such tech. Which is why I want you to surrender the device to me.“ Taylor goggled at her. They had two of the devices, but Alexander apparently didn't know that. “I have begun arrangements to have each of you placed in Witness Protection, the NSA is handling this as a terrorist plot. Some quick planning and we can establish legitimate stories for you all. Your families will have to go as well, but and I stress this, you cannot tell them what you know. You just cannot. They must believe the stories the NSA tells them. TwinStar abandoned dozens of millions of dollars worth of investment in what they were up to, not to mention the building itself, their other resources will be considerable. They will be searching for all of you. It only takes one slip and they'll have you. Therefore what happened must stay between those of us in this room, those of us who can understand the gravity of the situation. And no one else. Ever.“ Taylor swallowed hard, trying to take in what Alexander was saying.

At least now he knew the answer to his question about whether to tell her of Tate. Despite the injuries to her face and the obvious difficultly she was having speaking, her mouth kept leaking saliva. Making her words slur. Her attempt to be serious seem farcical; she tried to grimace with seriousness, her tone hard and demanding, only to appear cartoonish. Taylor looked to see what reaction Sue-Ann and Isabel would have, was surprised neither had spoken yet. Surprised they had allowed Alexander to take the lead. Did Alexander already discussed this with the two women? Did they approve of this Witness Protection stuff?

“No.“ a voice said. It was so quiet Taylor couldn't place who said it at first. He looked around questioningly, until the voice spoke again and he saw Izzy's mouth move. “No.“ she said again, louder, more forceful. emphatic. Everyone looked at her now.

“What do you mean, no, girl?“ Alexander bristled. Taylor looked at Isabel and Sue-Ann but neither woman spoke. Instead, Isabel raised a small, delicate cup to her mouth, blew on the contents and sipped. Her eyes were glued to her granddaughter, however. She betrayed nothing showing that her friend, Helen, had been killed recently. Sue-Ann gave a bit of a shake and stared around the room, glaring at everything, as if her sight could shatter anything she chose at will.

“I mean, we're not giving you the device. Obvi.“ Izzy said, there was a sharpness to her words. Relief washed over Taylor. She hadn't given away they had more than one. And though he felt some debt was owed Alexander for her help in getting them out of TransClarion, she would still be an automaton if not for them. We would not have been caught in the first place, if she hadn't messed up and got herself taken, so she could be used against us. Taylor had gotten most of the story since returning to Chatham. He knew it was Alexander who had caught Izzy, forced Winston and Lou to give in and carted them all off to the holding cell next to William's. That she was under TwinStar's control didn't change the fact her presence had made such possible. Yet if Alexander hadn't taken them to that room, we might never have gotten William out, not an survived. Shit. Izzy continued, “We're going to destroy it. No one should have tech like that. We already destroyed their schematics and backups and the extra wipers. You think we risked all of our lives so YOU, so the NSA could have the tech?“ Lou was nodding in agreement while Taylor found himself doing the same. Winston looked unsure, but for a moment for only, until he nodded, decisively and firm. Myth looked shocked, but she nodded as well. Taylor had to force himself not to say something rude, despite being grateful for Alexander's help.

“I'm not asking.“ Alexander said roughly. “I'm telling. I am Federal Agent and you all are under my protection. You five are children! You will do as I tell you. Do you really think you can take on the NSA and win?“ The sad state of her face ruined most of her attempt to be firm, but her tone was clear. The dichotomy looked ridiculous.

All five Society members tensed and they all looked around at each other. Everyone of them was pleased to see the same thing on the faces of the others. Determination. Izzy took the lead though. “I don't care who you are, lady, or whom you work for, or what you think you can do to us. What do you think you're going to do? Shoot us? Surveil us? Track us? We beat TwinStar. We'll beat you too. Besides, you can't tell your people about those wipers, you've already lied to them, or you wouldn't be here. They'd have erased you, you're a risk, a liability to them now, if they knew. So what will you do if we don't give you our wiper? You owe us gratitude, not demands. If not for us, you'd still be TwinStar's slave.“ Taylor felt a rush as Izzy spoke. Seeing her flush with anger and watch her smack Alexander down was exhilarating. Izzy's obvious natural element. This is how she became so good at social media! Even Winston seemed to enjoy it more than not, his feelings for Alexander obviously having cooled compared to those he felt for his friends. Lou even grinned, wickedly, but a grin still.

Alexander's eyebrows shot up as much as her swollen face would allow. She smoothed her short, severe hair. The agent leaned back in her chair, stunned, at a loss for words. Her head whipped around to all five teens, taking them all in, as though she were considering them for the first time. Her eyes narrowed.

Isabel spoke. Her voice was calm and colder than Taylor had ever heard before, Izzy taken orders of magnitude higher. She sounded otherwise unaffected by events, unless maybe there was a bit of crispness at the end of each sentence.

“As I understand it, Agent Alexander, these children are more than correct. That device won't be going anywhere. I won't pretend to understand why you think us untrustworthy, but expect others not to feel the same way about you. After you've admitted to lying to your superiors then asked us to do the same. You will not be making demands of us. You must see we are the only people whom you can trust. The only people you should trust. The danger you paint for us is no less for you. They know you, do they not? Worse, these...“ it seemed Isabel was about to say children, her mouth even seemed to be forming the word, but not liking the remembered taste of it, her vocal cords unwilling to push the air out to form it. “Young adults are convinced you have been implanted with a cochlear device yourself. TwinStar will see you as their property. Do you seriously think yourself safe from them?“ Her mouth twisted in disgust as she mentioned the implants. “Are we to believe this should not be considered? Can your precious NSA keep them out of your head? Can they protect you? Much less us?“

Taylor switch back to watch Alexander, but her face was so battered it was difficult to gauge her reaction beyond stunned. Sue-Ann had not spoken, nodding only when Isabel asked if Alexander were safe from being used again. Alexander apparently had no ready response, had her face not been shattered she probably would have been spluttering. Taylor knew he would have been, under the stares of those two women. They were huge, swooping, majestic eagles studying a particularly fat mouse. Taylor took advantage of the pause to ask a question of Alexander.

“You said they all got away. The Mayor. John Behrstable. The Twins. Can't the NSA find them? Wouldn't that be a better use of your time?“ Taylor said. Other questions floated around in his mind, in particular: what good will Witness Protection do? They captured an NSA agent – they would find us. Alexander stared at him intensely for a moment. Isabel and Sue-Ann each nodded, almost as if giving Alexander permission to answer.

“I didn't reveal the Mayor's presence. I can't be sure Behrstable and those odious girls don't have contacts at the NSA.“ Her tone was clear, she hated admitting such. “It would have led to things which must stay secret.“ That was even more bitter for her to say, in light of what Isabel had said to her. “Besides, very little at TwinStar points to those... those girls. They set up everything so it points to their father. He's who the NSA will follow. But I can say with surety, those girls will just dump him somewhere, they treated him like a servant while I was there. He is a tool to them, nothing more. A broken tool, now. They won't risk public exposure. Not for him.“ It was a very cold thought. But Taylor no longer believed Philomena or Phaedra incapable of such. A very strange thought, to imagine he had been sitting across from the Twins for months and months and they had been living this whole double life, none of it apparent to look at them. They just seemed like super rich He had been about to think, like Izzy. But he realized he no longer saw her in that light. She's grown. Taylor felt it should have been, people that heinous should be marked somehow. It should be obvious they were so deeply horrible, as it was obvious Parker and Lil J were privileged bullies. Taylor suddenly wondered where the two horrid boys were, what they would make of all this if they found any of it out.

Alexander was talking again, “...their detention would expose all of us to more questions than can be safely asked, much less answered. John Behrstable will have to be apprehended, of course, for questioning, at the least. Too many people were killed and they do have the receptionist in custody, though it's not clear what all she knows. Very little I would guess. Someone must take the fall. But I don't think he will be found. And if we do find him, we can't bring him up publicly on charges, so we couldn't hold him openly, his lawyers would make sure of that. Its likely the Director will issue a kill order. He'll be shot on sight.“ That comment seemed to stun Myth and Izzy, but not Lou, nor Winston, and strangely not Taylor either. She didn't comment about how much she'd risk if Behrstable was apprehended, what all he could tell her precious Director about her.

Taylor wasn't completely sure, but he felt perhaps an ignominious death, an anonymous grave, was what was called for in response to what the Behrstables, the Twins in particular, had done. The Mayor was murkier, it was still unknown whether he was a dupe or an accomplice, but Taylor couldn't believe, didn't want to believe the man wouldn't merely become a tool again, even if he wasn't complicit somehow. Taylor was cold with fear, after all, they were still in New York City and Goldberg was still the Mayor. He controls the city police! But looking to Winston and Lou, Taylor was comforted somehow.

“You suggest murder, then.“ Sue-Ann said blithely. “Just whom do you think we are? We do not murder people, nor condone the behavior in others.“ Lou blushed for some reason, oddly, so did Izzy. Winston looked determinedly at the floor. What happened I don't know about?

Alexander sat back in her chair again, not answering Sue-Ann. Sue-Ann sniffed angrily. “I can agree these...“ she seemed like Isabel, about to say children, but stopped, smiled faintly before continuing, “young adults need protection, and especially their families. Maybe you were right not to tell your superiors,“ it seemed very hard for Sue-Ann to offer that, her face definitely showed she disapproved of not telling one's superiors. “...of what occurred at the TransClarion Building, considering your role in it all. But these five saved you. And we lost one of our closest friends in the process. Like it or not, we must work together to figure out how to deal with all of this, but I draw the line at you goading these... young people into murder. I. Will. Not. Stand. For. It.“ Isabel's curt nod was support. Taylor was pleased.

“Well, what do you two suggest then?“ Alexander asked, her tone flippant, obviously she did not expect a reasonable response.

“I will tell you what is going to be done.“ Isabel, her icy calm at opposition to the blazing in her eyes and leveled against the anger which had laced Sue-Ann's words. “You will arrange for the families of these young people to enter government protection, and you will assure their safety. You will find a way to make this happen so that no one who can harm them knows whom they are. Mr. Zachary and Miss Smith, their families are most vulnerable. And you will oversee this personally and you will make sure there are no questions asked. You will guard their families as though they were your family. And I will look after Taylor and Myra and the other young people myself. It will be up to them what happens next. It will be their decisions how to proceed. They have earned that right! I do not like it much, perhaps. In fact, I am quite sure it will end badly for all of us. But I cannot escape this fact: these young people, these children,“ Taylor winced when she said children the word had so much anger woven into it. But Isabel had picked up steam and it heated her voice until a flush crept into her ivory cheeks. “against both good sense, my express wishes, and all expectations of failure, did something your precious NSA did not, possibly could not achieve. To suggest they simply pack up and leave this mess, as is, in your hands, is, well I must say, ridiculous in the extreme. I will personally fund their work. I must believe they will find the bottom of this rabbit hole, the head of the snake, as it were, and it will lead us to those awful Behrstable girls. I along with Sue-Ann will guide them, of course. They are still, and will remain, high school students. But as we have all seen, they will do as they see fit regardless of what they are instructed to do. So I intend to let them, within reason. And you will help them! As they require, or I swear by my husband's soul I will see you left out for the same buzzards which have already begun pecking at you.“

Alexander had ceased looking at Isabel about halfway through the woman's tirade. She was now staring determinedly at the floor. A full minute or more passed in silence with Sue-Ann and Isabel's eyes boring holes into Alexander. The Society teens watched avidly, until Alexander raised her head and spoke.

“Fine.“ she said, reluctant, petulant, angry. “I agree.“ She spit the words out. “But I will not be responsible for what happens to them.” Her chin thrust at both sets of teens. “Or the two of you.“ Her lips pursed at Sue-Ann and Isabel.

“As if you ever were?“ Sue-Ann snapped back. Alexander jolted upright like she had been stung. Taylor was in shock. Did I really just hear what I think I heard? Isabel had essentially ordered him and the other Society members separated from their families. Organized into what? A real spy club? A covert mini-agency? Loosely connected to the NSA through Alexander but funded by Isabel's billions?

Sue-Ann had gained a head of steam, while listening to Isabel. She leaned in towards Alexander, gray eyes on fire, her hands clenched in her lap, the knuckles gone white. “No one would expect true responsibility from your agency.“ She unclenched her hands, waved one in Taylor's direction. “They showed true responsibility. You're alive and free because of them. You have a lot of nerve to imply they need your taking responsibility for THEM. Really, I thought you NSA people were supposed to be made of stronger stuff.“ Sue-Ann looked Alexander up and down, snorted in disgust. “You seem just short of pathetic to me. I would have expected gratitude at the least from you, and all you offer are conditions. Nothing changes with you people. Nothing. You're as twisted as any of those corporate swine! So I will repeat Isabel's demands! You will work with us, and protect us as needed, with all the resources you can muster. Until we have discovered the full truth, or I will set the Willow Society on YOU and we'll see who needs to be responsible for whom!“

Alexander had no reply other than obvious indignation. Taylor bloomed with something, very like hope, but close to gloating pleasure. Izzy spoke before anyone else. “The Willow Society is... back?“

Isabel nodded solemnly. “Not that it was apparently ever gone, young lady. But yes. The Willow Society is back. The danger is just beginning, I think. I hope you are all prepared.“ Taylor felt a rising sense of pride at what both Isabel and Sue-Ann had said. Their vehemence on his behalf, and the other, was electric. Also felt it was a bit misplaced, likely intended for those responsible for TwinStar, but directed at Alexander because she was present and possessed such an arrogant, cool manner. Command is going down! Taylor looked to the faces of his friends and Izzy was smiling grimly, Lou had fallen back to her normal, no-expression-at-all. Winston, not shockingly, seemed a little perturbed, despite his smile. Myth excited, eager. Taylor tried to catch Izzy's attention and convey something to her, not that he was sure what he wanted to convey, his thoughts about her were a mass of seething confusion and desire, and anger. But she pointedly would not look at him.

Alexander sighed. “Fine, I agree.“ Taylor was pretty certain had Alexander's face not been so beaten up, she would have worn a very sour expression.

Unbidden, Taylor thought of Tate.

What would all this mean for their teacher and their erstwhile accomplice?

“What about Tate?“ Taylor asked, directing the question at Alexander, then everyone.

“Perhaps they will leave him be. Now. Once they have the CCOM panel returned to them.“ she said. Taylor wanted to tell her the CCOM panel was useless now. He had made it so. Locked it out from control of the satellite network. Worse, once his virus began to effect TwinStar's network, the satellites could very well up useless. Alexander seemed poised to say something else, so he didn't bother. The panel was just software, useless to anyone but him for the time being, but software could be re-written, emulated, manipulated.

“Do you mean there is only the one copy of the CCOM panel? You guys don't have any others, do you?“ Taylor said, sarcastic.

“Catching on are you?“ Alexander replied, sarcastically. “That's what we wanted Tate for. I mean them. What the Behrstables wanted him for. Tate stole it from the DoD. I just couldn't prove it. That's why I was at your school. I thought that if I renewed our relationship, he might slip and tell me.“ She had the presence to seem embarrassed by her admission. “It was too dangerous to allow multiple development copies. More, the code is written to degrade. It progressively erases key functions from the source, reducing functionality over time. At least that's how it was designed. Stored on read-only memory it will last, until it is copied. The degradation speeds up every time it is copied. When it was copied off the DoD servers, the mother copy degraded. It's useless now. Only the copy Tate stole, the copy Philomena stole from him, only that copy is pristine, without the degradation code.“ Does she know Tate didn't stolen the code directly? That he manipulated S-3y3 in Staten Island to do it for him? That the Behrstables had then sent a hit man to retrieve the code after Taylor and Winston had gotten hold of it? He had himself only pieced the whole story together upon returning to Chatham, hours before, between himself and Winston.

Overall it complicated matters considerably. Without the CCOM panel Taylor could not access the satellite network TwinStar had forged, piggybacked as it was on public use satellites and military hardware. But of course, neither could the Behrstables, not right away. The government might be able to, but not quickly. It should have been a comforting thought, but it wasn't. Yet maybe it made some sense. The CCOM panel, which only he could actively use, it would be better if no one had it. Perhaps, it's better that way, no one person should have that kind of power, not even me. But now Taylor squirmed in his seat, itching with need to tell Isabel and Sue-Ann, and his friends aside from Winston, who already knew, what the full story was, acutely aware they might not yet know.

“I should go.“ Alexander said, “I have too much to do and I need to have my face looked at.“ She said it like she wasn't in much real pain, despite continued wincing as she spoke. Taylor saw how similar to Lou she was in that regard. Or maybe how similar Lou was to her. No one responded. Alexander stood up, winced yet again, and said, “I'll be in touch in a few days to work out all the details, but until then I will have agents placed outside each of your homes, and tails placed on your family members.“ Alexander left.

“Now. I know you all need time to rest and heal, but you owe Sue and I full explanations of everything. In particular anything you might have held back from.... that woman.“ For a second Taylor thought Isabel was going to call Alexander a “bitch.“ “I must explicitly say I do not want this path for any of you.” Isabel's eyes lingered upon her granddaughter. “It is not appropriate, the risks are too great, and the burden beyond anything which should be asked of such young people.“ Her gaze drifted again, this time from face to face of each of the teenagers. “Yet I am so deeply proud of each of you. Amazed at what you all took upon yourselves. So daunting a task.“ She gave a wan smile. Sue-Ann nodded vigorously. “It will be hard for you, Taylor, to be separated from your family. And you Myth from your father. You will live here. I hope you will find Chatham House as welcoming as your own homes. I would not have wanted you separated from the people you love, could it be avoided, but it cannot. From this day forward, you and yours are marked, and you must accept this.“ There was no need, perhaps no desire for her to say exactly for what they were each marked. They knew. Taylor certainly did. “I trust you will comport yourselves accordingly. You will not let these moments pass by you idly.“ She glanced longer at Winston than any of the others, still smiling faintly. “Because these moments could be in very short supply“ Isabel was dangerously close to choking up. Sue-Ann waved the woman down and spoke.

“This will be no holiday. Though it may surprise some of you,“ she didn't sound as if she expected it to surprise anyone, “This is not the first time Isabel and I have faced times such as these. Though it is by far the most extreme. Perhaps some day we will share more of the story with those of you who don't know it. But not today.“ She took a deep-breath, and steadied herself, gave each of them a direct look. “I have avoided this, and truthfully I still want to, but if we are all, as a group, going to go forward with this course, with what must be done, this is a subject, I, we, cannot shy from.“

Myth sniffled gently. Lou hung her head in her hands. Taylor didn't understand what was going on at first. Winston looked confused and suddenly very sad, his smile having evaporated. Izzy, sitting next to him, tensed up, but it wasn't until the words started coming out Sue-Ann's mouth again Taylor understood clearly what was downing everyone else.

“Helen.“ Sue-Ann said. It all came rushing back. Perhaps it had been dulled by sleep, by the rush of action at TransClarion, or just mental fatigue, a symptom of too much information, too much seriousness coming at him in too short an interval. He didn't know exactly. Taylor wiped his nose and then his eyes after Sue-Ann said the dead woman's name.

“Helen died. Because of what you all decided to do.“ There was no accusation Taylor could hear in her words. No blame in her tone. “But it was not your fault, she was a very stubborn, headstrong woman and she made her own choices. And I think perhaps she was right to choose as she did. She would find it an insult to her memory to claim others made her decisions, especially the five of you. Whether you knew it or not. She adored each of you.” Sue-Ann stared Lou before she continued. Sue-Ann's voice had cracked a tiny amount as she looked at Lou, who had her arms wrapped around herself and slowly rocked forward and back, shaking visibly. When Lou saw she was being watched, she covered her face with her hands. Taylor was astonished. Lou is actually crying. Pity and concern settled onto Sue-Ann's face, and she kept going. “It is rather difficult for me to imagine she is well and truly... gone. I want each of you to remember her. Remember she believed in you, in what you are doing, what you still must do. We have all suffered a terrible loss. But I knew her, along with Isabel, very deeply and I can say she would not want you to cry, nor mourn her. She would not see it as a loss. She would want you to remember what she added to your life, not what her death took away at the end. She would tell you she lived a full, long life.“

She exhaled deeply, shifted her hands across her lap. Words seemed to fail her and she remained silent for some time, her lower lip quivering slightly. Isabel, who had been watching and occasionally nodding gently at Sue-Ann's words spoke next.

"But the truth is, she didn't have to die. We in this room let her die. And now we must work harder to see that she is the last of us to suffer such. It is our moral responsibility, our duty to stop these despicable people from inflicting this pain upon others as we have allowed them to inflict it upon us. With that said, we will have a service for her in three days. It will be private, for those of us here, only. Helen died in her sleep. Peacefully.“ This seemed odd, Taylor had to assume that Helen must have outlived whatever family she had, or that she had none. She had been such a pleasantly odd, if off-centered, woman. It was hard to imagine she had not had family somewhere. “A heart attack.“ Isabel added solemnly, supplying the story to them. Those who weren't consumed by their sadness and sobbing nodded.

“Now,“ Sue-Ann said, coughing a bit. “We want to know everything, and we will begin making plans. And unless I am greatly mistaken I think we should hear Taylor's story first. Taylor?“

Taylor blushed, feeling put on the spot. Everyone was looking at him now, even bleary-eyed Lou, sniffling Myth, glum Winston and a strangely rigid Izzy. Taylor gulped and tried to begin, but his voice cracked embarrassingly. He stopped, took a few breaths and looked at the floor. When he started speaking he was still looking down, not raising his head, but raising his voice instead, his head stayed down until he had been speaking for a full minute.

It took almost forty-five minutes for Taylor to get it all out. He had to loop back several times, drawing out connections that had not been apparent before. He told them in detail of what he and Winston had done at Cory's house on Staten Island, of how he now knew that Tate was behind that. About the Behrstables and TwinStar being behind what happened after, killing the NSA agent. He told them of the conversations he had overheard between Tate and Alexander, and of the cameras Winston had setup inside Willow Prep, of how they had used them to spy.

He talked about the nature of software, much to Sue-Ann's annoyance, she was a former IBM engineer, and knew most of what he had to say. He talked of viruses, of their use and limits and those he had created. Spending a lot of time, he laid out the manner of TwinStar's co-opting of the nation's communication and GPS and military satellites, how they had piggybacked code to steal bandwidth from each, of the damage which could be done should those satellites all fail, be disabled, or corrupted. He told them about his meeting with John Behrstable, how the man had tried to recruit him, wanted to put a cochlear implant in him, the man's naked desire for Taylor's skills. Nothing was left out. When his story finally reached the control room and he laid out exactly what he had done, finding it was almost as difficult to explain as it had been to survive, he saw shock on the faces of both older women. Sue-Ann interrupted him.

“You are certain? That only you can control it? For now?“ She was staring at him intensely, “The backdoor, you sealed it completely?“ Taylor had not expected her to be so responsive, she hated backdoors and viruses. When he nodded, somehow both sheepish and proud simultaneously, she seemed satisfied, but it seemed she was not saying something. Taylor wasn't sure what.

Continuing on, Taylor described leaving the control room, hearing when Helen was shot, and how the guards almost captured him again. He detailed Alexander coming to his aid, and his suspicions about why the guards had collapsed. But when it came to detailing the moment of Helen being shot, words failed Taylor. His mind was absorbed by the image of his red-coated fingers, of her blood on his hands. He hung his head down and was silent, letting his feelings wash out. The other all seemed to understand and no one asked him more about Helen. Continuing on brought him up to the moment those guards had collapsed and the mystery of how Alexander's implant had failed, causing the trickle of blood he had seen on her. Theories rattled around.

“Maybe there was some kind of interference?“ Myth said.

“Maybe when we destroyed the lab that caused the disruption, there were some central servers in there, lots of open nodes....“ Winston offered, “and that would have been about the same time...“

“The implants could be affected by lots of things...“ Myth said.

Taylor might have been able to think up possibilities of his own, but now that his story was ending his mind was leaden, sluggish. What he wanted more than anything was to see his family, long enough to know they were all right, and to be alone with his computer. I won't see my computer again for a long time. This thought made Taylor quite angry.

“Does it matter?“ He snapped. “Guessing won't tell us what happened.“ That stopped all the guessing. Eyes turned toward him, some angry, but most just looking perplexed. Taylor took the break to continue his story, eager to be done with it.

He told them about the elevator, about what Alexander had said, wanting to leave with him and forget the others. How she had offered to turn him over to her Director. The others looked angry. He was glad to see that they shared some of his distaste for the agent's desire to leave TwinStar unbeaten, to cut bait and run, abandoning his friends in the process. Though he left out the fact he had argued with her about it,just saying he refused.

When he reached the guard with the hole blown in his head, Lou cringed and Winston's returned smile slid off for a brief moment, long enough Taylor saw it, before it was firmly replaced. No one else noticed, they were all looking at him, not Winston. Taylor had been watching, specifically wanting to see their reactions.

“I don't know how she killed them all,“ Taylor said, looking at Winston and Lou very firmly. He hoped they would fill in the blank, but neither offered anything but nervous silence. Sighing, Taylor went on. Described the lab and the fact Alexander had mentioned her Director was “going to kill” her as she helped him destroy the last few remaining wipers, and how he had pocketed one unnoticed by Alexander. Lou did speak then.

“We tried to destroy them all, but Philomena and Phaedra had some kind of protection from the wipers, we couldn't get them to work on either of them, not while they had those suits on. But they fled after we got in the door anyway, and disabled their guards. We started destroying the thing and that's when the other guards came rushing in from where the Twins had fled. I fought them as best I could, but they knocked me out.“ Her face went red with embarrassment, or rage, it was hard to with Lou. It could be nothing at all. Taylor couldn't read her well.

“They got me right after that. I saw Phaedra aiming something at me, I ducked, but I woke up tied to a chair. I could see and feel, but I couldn't control my body, like there was a Plexiglas wall between myself and my body.“ Winston said.

Izzy nodded. She understood.

Myth frowned. “What happened after that?“ She was on the edge of her seat.

Taylor gulped and forged on, he mentioned the shoe he found, leading towards where they had taken Lou. Lou said she didn't remember struggling or having lost her shoe. He told about his shock, despair at finding Lou and Winston tied up. At finding and Phaedra Behrstable there. Which caused another round of interruptions.

“I still can't believe it.“ Myth said, shaking her head.

“Was it really them? Or were they being controlled by their father?“ Izzy asked.

Taylor told them about what the girls had said, how they made it clear they were the ones in control, answering only to something called Command. They had insulted their father, called him a “dumbass” and scoffed at the idea of him being charge of them.

“So the whole time, it's been THEM? And they were right under our noses?“ Winston said. Taylor nodded slowly. He finally told them about what he had found on Philomena's computer and he tried to apologize, telling them he realized that if maybe he had shared earlier maybe they could have figured Philomena out sooner, perhaps without losing Helen in the discovery. He choked up as he said it.

“Taylor. You really should have told us,“ Izzy said, “But this wasn't all your fault. No one could have figured all that out.“ But Lou glared at him, her face implacable. He had a very disturbing image of her clawing at his eyes in a blind rage. But thankfully the image passed.

“I think their father had to be involved to some degree. But he seemed like he was wiped to me. Or had an implant“ Taylor said, trying to move the subject away. He told them about Behrstable's blank face, so like that of wiped guards. But what about the sadness in the man's eyes? Did I just imagine it?

“But I think maybe, whatever zapped Alexander's implant, or however she broke its control, Behrstable somehow did the same, near the end. He didn't seem the same when he saw Philomena knocked out.“ Izzy nodded vigorously.

“It can be broken, at least the wiper can. Maybe he didn't have an implant.“ she said.

Taylor continued, ready to be done recounting.

“I thought I wiped Philomena...“ Taylor told them. Almost everyone smiled, except Lou and Izzy. She looked directly at Taylor, hurt and looked away. But, why? The memory was one of the few good ones from the whole affair. Taylor hadn't actually wiped Philomena, he explained, only stunned her. There was no point in telling them he had thought briefly about killing Philomena, so he left that out. He repeated his suspicions about Behrstable's state of mind as well.

“It's not like you killed her, I wonder why he went so overboard?“ Winston asked.

“Maybe you should have killed her, “ Myth said. Lou's face, still impassive, glared at the small, dark girl next to her.

Sue-Ann who had been quietly listening, not wading into the interruptions, only tapping at her knee every few minutes, nodded when Taylor caught her eyes. Isabel reacted even less, she still looked like she was trying to be calm over anger. Sue-Ann spoke. “Is that what he should have done?“ Her voice was low, just above a whisper and each word was enunciated hard, like she forced the syllables out through clenched teeth. Her face appeared calm, but her eyes were wide and her cheeks slightly red.

“They killed Helen!“ Myth shot back, she met Sue-Ann, challenging look for challenging look. It was shocking. Sue-Ann held Myth's gaze for a time, growled a sigh and looked away.

“Perhaps. Who can say? But the fact is Taylor didn't.“ Isabel said. “Can you honestly believe the same young man would sit before us had he killed the girl, in cold blood? You have never killed anyone, Myra Smith.“ The use of Myth's real name was unusual, both older women generally respected Myth's desire to be called Myth. Myth shifted backwards, away from both women, as though she had been slapped and didn't want to chance another. But Isabel leaned forward, compensating. “You all must become who you must become. You have already been thrust into lives larger than most ever will be, do not be too eager to go further. Being a killer is no easy thing with which to live.“ A very bitter note slipped into Isabel's voice, and Sue-Ann looked away. Isabel sunk into herself and grew smaller, at least to Taylor, perhaps it was all in his mind but she seemed like a caricature of herself suddenly. Like she had spent years weaving a cocoon around herself which only looked the dignified, stately woman she had always appeared to be. Now, that cocoon appeared to have shriveled before his eyes, and sitting there was a younger seeming girl, not quite a woman, shivering in remembered fear, feeling as small, shrunken as she looked. Where did that came from?

Myth hadn't seen anything, she had closed her eyes. Still, she looked hurt. Isabel wasn't done. “It is not fear of losing any of you which torments me. Nor the thought of what you all face. It is the fear you may become something... dark. Like those Behrstable girls. In the process lose yourselves. It is easier than you think, I have seen it. The path is always just ahead of where you are, a fork you might never see until you have irrevocably traveled down it.“

Silence. Taylor had never thought of anything like that. Who you became was in the future, had little to do with the now. Only adults seemed to be concerned about such things. Taylor had always assumed his future self would happen the way he was supposed to happen, he would become whom he was meant to be. But something in Isabel words struck him like a flash of insight, similar to those he often had while coding, when the pattern of variables and functions and algorithms magically converged into a solution, elegant and simple. That flash missed something, when coding the flash always brought a solution with it, but not now. Now it brought only more questions. Taylor was sure an answer was there, hovering past the edges of his thought, waiting for him to grab it. Like a word on the tip of the tongue, just beyond reach. His mouth worked silently and his gaze swept the floor.

Another flash and it was there.

He spoke before the thought had fully settled in his mind, his voice filling up the silence like a universe inflating, just after birth. “There is no coming back from killing someone. That's what you're saying, right, Isabel? Being a killer is like being dead in a way, it's final, lasts forever. Like a stain on your soul.“ He wasn't sure where the words had come from, but the image he had had of Isabel fit. I saw the stain on her soul, somehow, when she bared it for moment. Maybe it's just a matter of knowing how to look. Being willing to see.

Of course, a person could still live, be fulfilled despite, but the stain would always be there, always coloring everything you came to be. Lou was glaring at him again. Expressionless as usual, but her eyes were burned with something, directed at him. What is she mad at me about? When Lou saw him notice, she looked away.

Isabel gave him a frank, appraising look. Her eyes locked onto his, letting him know she was aware he had seen something in her. Something now existed between them, an understanding, a knowledge and an expectation. He nodded back at her. Sue-Ann coughed.

“Thankfully, none of you were forced to make such a choice. Now if you would continue?“ Looking at Taylor she waved him on.

Talking about Behrstable's pain wasn't as hard as it might have been. Taylor was lightened by doing it. Suddenly, he remembered the kiss Winston had planted on a stunned Agent Alexander. It all the excitement, all the tragedy, the rush of everything else he had pushed that memory aside. But it came back now. Taylor laughed.

“What?“ Izzy said, confused. Lou actually cracked a smile as well, she clearly knew what Taylor was remembering, at least her mouth twitched upwards. Winston blushed furiously, leaving Myth to look between them questioningly, getting annoyed by the moment. Finally Lou supplied the words.

“Winston kissed Alexander.“ Lou said. Izzy covered her mouth, her weak laugh. The kind you gave a person who told a joke wrong and insisted that it really was funny, tried to make it work anyway. Myth did not laugh. Her jaw twitched and her little hands clenched into fists. Winston treated her like a little sister, though she wanted more. He was oblivious to her reaction, possibly on purpose.

“It was a pretty sweet kiss, right?“ Winston said, still blushing pink. Taylor nodded, tried not to notice Myth.

“Alright. Enough. Taylor?“ Sue-Ann cut in.

Taylor coughed out another short laugh, it felt good and finished his story.

The story done, Isabel and Sue-Ann both took deep breaths and in nearly identical fashion dusted off their slacks and shifted in their seats, as though preparing to deliver unpleasant news.

“The Behrstable Twins will not hide for long.“ Isabel said.

“In fact, they likely have little, if any, reason to do so. We have not seen the last of them. I am afraid you all must prepare yourselves for the very real possibility they will return someday soon. Also that the Mayor will return to Gracie Mansion and John Behrstable will end up wherever he can hide out, if he lives.“

This floored Taylor, because it was almost certainly the truth. They had beaten TwinStar, but not totally. And they had nothing actionable on the Twins, not really, even if going to the authorities were an option, which it wasn't. We have to deal with this ourselves. Worse still, the Twins knew them all, knew they were a group now and had resources to be countered.

“What can we do?“ Myth said.

“First, we must talk to Tate.“ Sue-Ann said. “I fear he is going to be a problem. And we had best solve that problem sooner rather than later.“ Isabel nodded in agreement. Tate is on our side, he'll work with us.

“For now, you can all go get some rest. We will make decisions about this later.“ Sue-Ann said. She was, perhaps, eager to talk alone with Isabel, likely to pore over the details the teens had supplied to the two women. Taylor was about to argue, but his opened mouth betrayed him with a yawn, against his will. It was like a the wave in stadium, whirling around the room from teen to teen until they had all yawned expansively.

“Go! All of you! Now!“ Isabel ordered, fondly.

And everyone went.

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